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    UCLA men’s basketball team’s identity is a work in progress
    • October 7, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — In Mick Cronin’s first four seasons as the UCLA men’s basketball head coach, his team has always finished with a better record than the year before.

    UCLA was 19-12 overall in Cronin’s first year before the Bruins’ season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2019-20 season. UCLA improved to 22-10 in Year Two and made it to the Final Four. In his third season, UCLA was 27-8 with a trip to the Sweet 16. Last season, UCLA went 31-6 and won the Pac-12 championship before its season ended with another Sweet 16 trip.

    “Last year was our best team,” Cronin said. “I really felt if we would have stayed healthy, I would have made us favorite to win the championship. I don’t know if that’s realistic every year.”

    However, Cronin said he’s still proud of his program’s 9-3 record in the past three NCAA men’s basketball tournaments.

    Meanwhile, Cronin readily proclaimed after Friday’s practice at the Mo Ostin Basketball Center that his team’s best player is sophomore Adem Bona.

    The 6-foot-10 forward/center, last season’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, has been limited during the first week of practice as he continues recovering from a left shoulder injury he suffered in the Pac-12 tournament in early March.

    “I’m really pleased with where we’re at and the fact that Adem (Bona) has not played live play yet,” Cronin said. “It’s helping us get these other guys reps, but when the lights come on, we need to have (Bona) ready. I’m well aware of that.”

    Bona (7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 blocks) is just one of four returning rotation players from a team that featured and lost Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark and Amari Bailey. Bona and 6-foot-2 sophomore guard Dylan Andrews are the team’s leading returning scorers at 7.7 and 3.3 points per game, respectively.

    “Tyger could have been here a sixth year, but for his life and his career and evolution, it’s healthy for him, it’s healthy for Dylan (Andrews),” Cronin said. “It will be painful early for us, but I think it’s healthy for Tyger to start building his pro career and experience life.”

    The team’s lone redshirt senior is 6-foot-10 forward/center Kenneth Nwuba, the last remaining Bruin from the program’s 2021 Final Four team. The other guard with significant college basketball experience is 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore Will McClendon, who was praised by Cronin for his activity on defense.

    Seven of the 15 players on the Bruins’ 2023-24 roster are freshmen, including intriguing international prospects like 7-foot-3 freshman center Aday Mara from Spain, 6-foot-9 freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel from Turkey, 6-foot-6 guard Ilane Fibleuil from France and 6-foot-6 guard Jan Vide from Slovenia.

    Cronin said he’s going to have to be patient while investing the necessary time to teach his defensive philosophies.

    “What you have to do is remind yourself, they don’t know,” Cronin said.

    “They have no defensive habits and it’s not their fault. You can’t just think, ‘Well, we worked on that yesterday.’ It takes like sometimes two months, sometimes two years, to get guys to habitually do the right things defensively.”

    Other newcomers include 6-foot-7 junior guard Lazar Stefanovic of Serbia, who transferred from Utah (10.3 points per game), 6-foot-7 freshman guard/forward Brandon Williams from New York and 6-foot-10 freshman forward Devin Williams, who helped Corona Centennial win the 2023 CIF Southern Section Open Division championship.

    At Friday’s practice, Cronin focused on playing two post players at the same time and the team’s wing players looked like willing and capable three-point shooters, in particular Vide.

    Brandon Williams made an instant impact using his 220-pound frame to score inside, while also still displaying guard-like skills.

    The 7-foot-3 Mara not only stood out because of his height but also his above-average passing ability and his nifty moves in the post.

    UCLA will begin the 2023-24 season against Saint Francis on Nov. 6 at Pauley Pavilion.

    ​ Orange County Register